- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - Environmental activists pushing Massachusetts to divest its state pension fund from fossil fuel companies are getting words of encouragement from some of the candidates running for governor.

At least three Democratic candidates are offering full or qualified support for the activists, who have also tried to pressure universities and local governments to pull financial support from the companies in an attempt to raise awareness about climate change.

The activists, including many college students, are holding out hope for a bill that would require the state Pension Reserves Investment Management Board to “sell, redeem, divest or withdraw all publicly-traded securities” in fossil fuel companies.

“In the same way divestment efforts changed the national discussion around tobacco and apartheid, we hope the divestment of fossil fuels will change the national discussion around climate change,” said Emily Kirkland, a recent graduate of Brown University and spokeswoman for the Better Future Project.

About $1.3 billion in state pension fund assets were invested in fossil fuels out of a total value of $54 billion as of May 2013, according to supporters of the legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Benjamin Downing, has argued that divestment is inevitable, pointing to the state’s ongoing efforts to encourage the development of wind, solar, and other sources of renewable energy.

The Pittsfield Democrat said Massachusetts can take the lead in that effort and become the first state to divest its pension fund. Downing’s bill has yet to reach the floor of the Senate or House for a vote. The Legislature’s formal session ends July 31.

Some of those seeking the state’s highest political office are backing the idea, at least in part.

Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman - both Democratic candidates for governor - gave the proposal qualified support.

A spokeswoman for Coakley said she backs divestment from fossil fuels “as long as we can ensure that it does not harm our ability to meet our financial obligations or place a greater burden on taxpayers in Massachusetts.”

Grossman, who as treasurer serves as chairman of the PRIM board, also supports Downing’s bill “as long as we comply strictly with our fiduciary responsibility,” according to a campaign aide. A provision in the bill states that any divestment can’t result in a loss to the pension fund of more than one half of 1 percent.

Another Democratic candidate has given a more full-throated endorsement of the measure.

Don Berwick has said he supports “immediately divesting state pension funds from those fossil fuel companies that demonstrate an irresponsible and unresponsive disregard of the principles of environmental stewardship.”

Two independent gubernatorial hopefuls staked out more cautious stands.

Evan Falchuk said he would want to put the question to a public referendum, adding that “if the majority of voters supported divestment” he would back it.

Another independent candidate, Jeff McCormick, opposed the measure, saying it’s “not an appropriate use of divestment for the state’s already struggling pension funds” and adding there are better ways to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and “encourage and invest in the development of green businesses.”

The PRIM Board is charged with managing the Pension Reserves Investment Trust consisting of the assets of the state employees’ and teachers’ retirement systems as well as the assets of local retirement systems.

An oil and gas trade group has dismissed the divestment efforts, saying the industry has created jobs and rising profits for investors. The executive director of the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management Board has said divestment would create a “significant administrative and operational burden.”

Eight cities and towns in Massachusetts - Framingham, Sudbury, Concord, Amherst, Cambridge, Northampton, Provincetown and Truro - have approved nonbinding resolutions calling for pension fund divestment. Activists say that’s the highest number of communities in any state backing the measure.

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